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Bible Commentaries
1 Corinthians 7

Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary for Schools and CollegesCambridge Greek Testament Commentary

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Verses 1-99

Ch. 7:1 9. Advice concerning Marriage and Celibacy

1 . Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me ] The newly converted Corinthians had evidently found themselves in a difficulty concerning marriage. The Jews in general, whatever ascetics like the Essenes and Therapeutæ among them may have done, set a high value upon it; while the best of the heathen philosophers were inclined to depreciate it, and certain sayings of our Lord (see St Matthew 19:5-12 ) seemed to support their view. The Corinthians had evidently written to consult St Paul on the point. The Apostle’s advice may be thus summarized: that though the unmarried were, from their freedom from all entangling ties, most at liberty to serve God in any way that He might put before them, and though in the present season of temptation and persecution (vv. 26, 28) the unmarried would be spared much trial and anguish which would fall heavily upon married persons, yet that it was the duty of those who, in an unmarried state, were in danger of offending against that solemn law of Christian purity which he had just laid down, to “marry, and so keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s Body.” The growth in these luxurious days of habits at variance with the simple and unostentatious life of the true Christian, places great difficulties in the way of those who would follow St Paul’s advice, and is, therefore, the cause of an amount of immorality and misery which it were better to prevent than to be compelled to cure.

2 . Nevertheless, to avoid fornication ] Literally, on account of the fornications , i.e. the habitual practice of this vice in the Church of Corinth. See note on ch. 6:13. We are not to suppose (see Meyer) that we have the whole of the Apostle’s view of marriage, but simply that which connects itself with the question that has been asked him. To understand the doctrine of marriage, as generally delivered in the Christian Scriptures, we must compare St John 2:0 ; Ephesians 5:23-30 ; 1 Timothy 5:14 ; Hebrews 13:4 ; 1 Peter 3:1-7 . “These are questions of casuistry , which depend upon the particular case , from which word the term casuistry is derived.” Robertson.

let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband ] Calvin remarks that we have here a prohibition of polygamy.

3 . due benevolence ] The better supported reading is what is due , the debt .

4 . The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife ] We here are reminded of the valuable principle that in everything connected with the duties of married life each should consult the comfort, well-being, and happiness of the other before their own, and should be especially careful that they do not, by any selfishness on their part, ‘cause their brother to offend.’

5 . that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer ] The best MSS., most of the Fathers, and many of the best versions, including the Vulgate, omit the word ‘fasting.’

Satan ] Cf. 1 Peter 5:8 .

6 . by permission ] i.e. by way of permission on the Apostle’s part to the Corinthian Church, not of God to him, as it is sometimes misunderstood. The original signification of the word thus rendered is agreement . Thence it comes to mean permission, indulgence, concession . Vulgate, indulgentia ; Calvin (and Estius), venia ; Beza, concessio ; Wiclif, well, giving leave ; Tyndale, of faveour .

7 . every man hath his proper gift of God ] Cf. St Matthew 19:11 .

10 16. Mutual obligations of Married Persons

10 . yet not I, but the Lord ] The Apostle is quoting our Lord’s words in St Mark 10:11 , Mark 10:12 . No distinction is intended between what he, as a private individual enjoined, and what God commanded. “He never wrote of himself, being a vessel of the Holy Ghost, Who ever spoke by him to the Church.” Dean Alford.

Let not the wife depart from her husband ] Literally, be separated , but not implying that the separation took place without her consent. The Apostle would seem here to be speaking of voluntary separations , not of such violations of the fundamental principle of marriage (see ch. 6:15 18) as are glanced at in St Matthew 19:9 . So St Chrysostom on ver. 12: “Here there is hope that the lost member may be saved through the marriage, but in the other case the marriage is already dissolved .” Such voluntary separations were contrary to the command of Christ, and could only be allowed (see ver. 15) under very exceptional circumstances.

11 . but and if she depart ] Literally, be separated , as above. There were great facilities for divorce, both under the law of Greece and Rome, in St Paul’s day, but the facilities were greater for the husband than for the wife. At Athens the husband could dismiss his wife at will. At Sparta failure of issue was regarded as a sufficient reason. Thus the Ephors, we are told by Herodotus (v. 39) sent for Anaxandrides and urged him, lest the race of Eurysthenes should be extinct, to put away his wife. Something similar is related by the same historian (vi. 61 3) of Ariston. So in Roman law, the husband had originally the full disposal of the wife’s person and liberty, but this harsh regulation was resented by the wives, and in the days of the empire the wife also obtained the power of divorce. Cicero and Cæsar both divorced their wives. Juvenal ( Sat . vi. 229, 230) speaks of the fatal facility of divorce, possessed by the wives in his day: the then accepted theory being that whatever put an end to conjugal affection was sufficient to dissolve marriage. See Art. Divortium in Smith’s Dictionary of Antiquities , and Merivale’s History of Rome , Vol. iv. The Jewish law of divorce was also very lax. See St Matthew 5:31 , Matthew 5:32 ; Deuteronomy 24:1 .

12 . But to the rest speak I, not the Lord ] That is, there has been no precept given by Christ Himself in the particular case now referred to, therefore St Paul falls back on the general inspiration given by Christ to His Apostles. Compare ver. 40 (where see note), and St John 16:13 . “Christ lays down the general rule, the Apostles apply it to particular emergencies.” Stanley.

If any brother hath a wife that believeth not ] This, the case where one of the two persons already married is an unbeliever, the most difficult of all, is here dealt with, and the sacredness of the marriage tie maintained under circumstances the most unpromising. The only case in which ‘a brother or sister is not under bondage’ to its obligations is where (ver. 15) the unbelieving partner insists upon a separation.

13 . let her not leave him ] The word here is the same which in the last verse is translated ‘ put away .’

14 . is sanctified ] In both members of the sentence the original has hath been sanctified , i.e. by the conversion of the believer to Christianity. The sacred character imparted by Christianity has, since it imparts union with Christ the Lord of all, a power to overbear the impurity of the non-Christian partner in wedlock. Meyer’s note is very striking here. He says that “the Christian sanctity affects even the non-believing partner in a marriage and so passes over to him that he does not remain a profane person, but through the intimate union of wedded life becomes partaker (as if by a sacred contagion) of the higher divinely consecrated character of his consort.” And this is because matrimony is “a holy estate instituted of God.” For the much stricter view under the Law, Dean Stanley refers to Ezra, ch. 9, and Nehemiah 9:2 , Nehemiah 13:23-28 . But these marriages were contracted in defiance of the prohibition in Exodus 34:16 ; Deuteronomy 7:3 , Deuteronomy 7:4 , a prohibition rendered necessary by the surrounding idolatry and its attendant licentiousness. They stand upon a different footing to marriages contracted before admission into covenant with God.

else were your children unclean, but now are they holy ] This principle applies also to the children of such a marriage. The sanctity, i.e. the consecration, of the parent possessing the life of Christ, and living in holy wedlock with an unbelieving husband or wife, descends to the child, which from its birth may be regarded as ‘holy to the Lord.’ “Which we may not so understand as if the children of baptized parents were without sin, or grace from baptized parents derived by propagation, or God by covenant and promise tied to save any in mere regard of their parents’ belief: yet to all professors of the name of Christ this pre-eminence above infidels is freely given, that the fruit of their bodies bringeth into the world with it a present interest and right to those means wherewith the ordinance of Christ is that His Church shall be sanctified.” Hooker, Ecclesiastical Polity , Book v. lx. 6. This holds good, however, only of such marriages as were contracted before conversion. Christians were forbidden in ver. 39 and in 2 Corinthians 6:14 , to contract such marriages.

15 . A brother or a sister is not under bondage (literally, enslaved ) in such cases ] The Roman Catholic divines, e.g. à Lapide and Ambrosiaster, as well as the Canon law, held that in the case of the heathen partner refusing to live with the other when he or she embraced Christianity, the Christian was justified in contracting a fresh marriage. See Wordsworth, in loc .

to peace ] The marginal in peace is to be preferred, as signifying the spirit in which God called us.

16 . For what knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband? ] Until the 14th century the meaning of this passage was supposed to be that the believing partner was not to leave the unbeliever, in hope of bringing about his conversion. See 1 Peter 3:1 . But Lyra then pointed out that the opposite view was more agreeable to the context. The preceding verse recommends departure, and the following verse, beginning with a qualifying particle ‘ but ’ or more literally except, only , seems to imply that the advice in ver. 15, 16 was to be looked upon as referring to a particular case and was not to be tortured into a general rule. For the insisting on marriage rights when the unbelieving party to the contract was desirous of severing it was an attempt at compulsion which was undesirable in itself, and might not, after all, be followed by the salvation of the unbeliever. Dean Stanley remarks on the influence of the earlier interpretation upon history in such marriages as that of Clotilda with Clovis and of Bertha with Ethelbert of Kent.

17 24. Christianity not intended to revolutionize the relations between the believer and society

17 . But as God hath distributed ] The permission to live apart from a heathen husband or wife is given only to meet a special case, that in which the unbelieving partner demands the separation. The general rule is, remain in the condition in which you were called . That was the rule which St Paul was giving to his converts wherever he went. He now proceeds to give two remarkable illustrations of his principle, calculated at once to arrest and fix the attention of the Corinthians. He applies it to the relations of Jew and Gentile; and to those of slave and freeman, and thus shews that Christianity was not intended to introduce a violent revolutionary element into society, but to sanctify existing relations until the time came that they could be amended. “Christianity interferes indirectly, not directly, with existing institutions.” Robertson. Cf. St Luke 12:13-15 .

18 . Is any man called being circumcised? let him not become uncircumcised ] Many Jews, we are assured, were ashamed of their Judaism, and were desirous to obliterate all the outward signs of it. (1 Macc. 1:15.) This feeling would receive an additional impulse from conversion to Christianity. But St Paul believed that, once a Jew, a man was ‘a debtor to do the whole law’ (Galatians 5:3 ). He acted upon this view of the case himself (Acts 18:21 , Acts 21:26 ) in marked contrast to the Judaizing teachers (Galatians 6:13 ), but with one exception under special circumstances (Acts 16:3 ). Therefore he urged those who were called in Judaism not to abandon the customs of their nation.

Is any called in uncircumcision? ] That the Gentiles were free from the obligation of the Jewish law was decided in the conference held at Jerusalem (Acts 15:0 ) and after some wavering (Galatians 2:11-21 ) it was set at rest, principally by the courage and clear-sightedness of the great Apostle of the Gentiles.

19 . Circumcision is nothing ] It was not circumcision in itself that had any value, but the obedience to a divine command.

20 . Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called ] See note on ch. 1:20. It is not what we call man’s “vocation,” but God’s act of calling that is spoken of.

21 . use it rather ] This may either be interpreted (1) “use freedom ,” or (2) “use slavery .” Dean Stanley remarks of this passage that its interpretation “is one of the most evenly balanced questions in the New Testament.” But the context, the position of the word καὶ in the former part of the sentence (its literal translation would seem to be but even if thou canst be made free ), and the fact that the word translated use has often the sense undergo, endure (for examples see Dean Alford’s note), make it probable that the second is the correct interpretation, and that the slave is here instructed to refuse freedom if offered. And the strongest objection to this interpretation, namely, that Christianity has always allowed men to occupy a position of more extended usefulness if offered to them, is obviated by the fact that St Paul does not absolutely forbid his converts to accept liberty; he merely instructs them to prefer to remain in the condition in which they were called, unless some very strong indication of God’s will bade them leave it, such as was manifested in the case of Onesimus. See Ep. to Philemon. The doctrine of Christian liberty was intended to make men free in , not from , the responsibilities of their position. But as St Peter reminds us (1 Peter 2:16 ; 2 Peter 2:19 ) the doctrine of Christian liberty could be abused. It was abused when it induced among the newly-converted a restlessness and dissatisfaction with their lot, which would have rendered Christianity a source, not of peace, but of confusion (cf. ver. 15, and ch. 14:33).

22 . the Lord’s freeman ] Rather, freedman , the Latin libertus . So Beza, Calvin and the Vulgate, and the margin of our version. The English translators generally seem to have missed this point.

Christ’s servant ] For this expression, cf. Ephesians 6:6 ; James 1:1 ; 2 Peter 1:1 ; Jude 1:0 .

23 . be not ye the servants of men ] Literally, slaves of men . Let your minds and spirits be free, whatever may be your outward condition, i.e. be indifferent to mere external relations altogether, for though man may enslave the body he cannot enslave the soul.

24 . with God ] Literally, before God . A repetition of the precept of ver. 20, under a more solemn sanction. The believer is reminded Who it is that hath ordained his condition, as a sufficient reason that he should be contented with it .

25 38. General Instructions Concerning the Marriage of Virgins

25 . virgins ] i.e. unmarried women. St Paul now returns to the question of marriage. But before he enters upon the question of the marriage of virgins, he treats, according to his usual rule, of the general principle of which theirs is a particular case. The time is short, and he would have all as free from care as possible.

26 . the present distress ] The literal rendering of the word here translated distress is necessity , and it is so translated in ver. 37. But it frequently in the New Testament, as in the Septuagint, has the sense of distress, as in St Luke 21:23 ; 2 Corinthians 6:4 , 2 Corinthians 6:12 :10; 1 Thessalonians 3:7 . Here it means either (1) ‘the great tribulation’ which was to precede our Lord’s coming (see St Matthew 24:0 .; St Mark 13:0 .; St Luke 21:0 .; Revelation 7:14 ), or (2) the general distress and anxiety which attended the profession of Christianity in those times.

so to be ] “ thus to be,” as explained in the next verse.

28 . trouble in the flesh ] Tribulation, either as Monica, when she saw her son Augustine falling into sin and infidelity, or as many other Christian parents whose souls the ‘sword’ of the executioner was destined to ‘pierce through,’ as they beheld the martyrdom of their children.

but I spare you ] Either (1) the Apostle from his tenderness towards them spares them the recital of the many sorrows that will befall them, or (2) he is anxious to spare them the sorrows themselves.

29 . But this I say, brethren ] The conclusion of the whole matter. The time is short, the world is passing away. In whatever condition a man is, let him live in a constant state of readiness to abandon it at the bidding of God. Let him keep his soul unfettered by the ties, the enjoyments, and above all, the cares of this life. There are several ways of rendering this passage, but they do not materially affect the meaning.

the time is short ] Not time in the general sense. The word here signifies a definite space of time. Cf. the English version of 1 John 2:18 , ‘the last time.’ The word translated short is rather shortened . “Compressed.” Robertson. “Living many years in one.” Stanley.

30 . they that rejoice, as though they rejoiced not ] “Look round this beautiful world of God’s: ocean dimpled into myriad smiles; the sky a trembling, quivering mass of blue, thrilling hearts with ecstasy; every tint, every form, replete with beauty. God says, ‘be glad.’ Do not force young, happy hearts to an unnatural solemnity, as if to be happy were a crime. Let us hear their loud, merry, ringing laugh, even if sterner hearts can be glad no longer; to see innocent mirth and joy does the heart good. But now observe, everlasting considerations are to come in, not to sadden joy, but to calm it.… We are to be calm. cheerful, self-possessed; to sit loose to all these sources of enjoyment, masters of ourselves.” Robertson.

31 . as not abusing it ] Perhaps better, as not using It to excess . So in ch. 9:18.

for the fashion of this world passeth away ] Rather, is passing away , as a scene in a theatre (see Stanley and Alford’s notes). This translation brings out more clearly the belief of the early Church in the speedy coming of Christ. Cf. 1 John 2:17 .

32 . He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord ] One great reason why the Apostle recommends celibacy is the freedom that it gives from anxiety about worldly matters, the opportunity it offers of “attending upon the Lord without distraction.” But the Apostle does not desire his advice to be a snare to entangle those who feel that they can serve God with less distraction in the married state. He leaves it to all to decide for themselves according to their sense of what is most desirable and becoming in their own case. The words translated here ‘care,’ ‘carefulness,’ have the idea, as in St Matthew 6:25 , Matthew 6:27 , Matthew 6:28 , Matthew 6:31 , Matthew 6:34 (where our translation has ‘take thought’), of trouble, anxiety.

34 . There is difference also ] The text is here in great confusion, and there is great variety of punctuation among the editors. The Vulgate and Calvin, who are followed by many modern editors, translate thus: He that is married careth for the things of this life, how he may please his wife, and is distracted. And the unmarried woman and the virgin (some read unmarried virgin ) careth for the things of the Lord . There are two objections to this rendering: (1) The term unmarried woman is a singular one to apply either to a widow, or to a married woman living apart from her husband; and (2) it is difficult to see how the Apostle could commend the latter in the face of his express prohibition of separation save in the particular case mentioned in ver. 15, 16. Wordsworth translates, “The wife and the virgin, each has her appointed lot ,” thus keeping the original meaning of the word here used. See also ver. 17, where it is translated distributed , and also 2 Corinthians 10:13 and ch. 1:13.

35 . attend upon the Lord ] Literally, sit conveniently before ( or beside ) Him . Dean Stanley refers to Martha and Mary in St Luke 10:39-41 , as an exact illustration of this expression. Martha is ‘cumbered with much serving,’ Mary sits at Jesus’ feet.

36 . his virgin ] i.e. his daughter . The advice here given is to parents . In St Paul’s time, and in most continental countries now, it is the parents who decide on the marriage of their children. In France, and in some other foreign countries, the young people very often do not even see one another before they are contracted. But St Paul thinks it might in some cases be ‘unseemly’ conduct on the part of a parent to refuse a proposal of marriage for a daughter who desired to serve God in the married state.

if she pass the flower of her age ] Rather, If she have fully attained it.

and need so require ] Literally, and so it ought to be ; that is, if it be fair and reasonable that the wish of both parties should be carried out, and it would be harsh to act otherwise. Some think that the reference is to the disgrace incurred by a maiden, especially a Jewish maiden who had passed the age of maturity, and was still unmarried a disgrace which also attached to a Jewish father who had not provided a suitable marriage for her. Cf. Ecclus. 7:25, “Marry thy daughter, and thou hast performed a weighty matter.” See also Ecclus. 42:9. The Rabbins advised rather that a slave should be released as a husband for the daughter, than that she should remain unmarried. Others, again think that the danger of sin (ver. 2, 5, 9) is here referred to. See Ecclus. 42:10.

let them marry ] i.e. the daughter and her lover.

37 . having no necessity ] This might be the case either (1) if the maiden be not specially desirous for the married life, or (2) if her hand be not sought in marriage, or (3) if, when sought, she be unwilling to accept the proposal. The language of the Apostle embraces all three suppositions.

but hath power over his own will ] The legitimate authority of the parent is great, but he has no right to treat his children as mere chattels. He can only be said to have ‘power over his own will’ when he can act without selfishly thwarting the reasonable wishes of those whom God has committed to his care.

and hath so decreed in his heart ] “If in other lighter actions nothing is permitted to children without the authority of their parents, much less is it desirable that freedom should be given them in contracting matrimony.” Calvin.

keep his virgin ] i.e. to keep her at home unmarried.

39, 40. The Second Marriage of Women

39 . The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth ] Cf. Romans 7:2 .

if her husband be dead ] Literally, if her husband sleep , or rather, perhaps, be laid to sleep , the word generally used of the death of Christians, and even of the saints of the old covenant. See St Matthew 27:52 ; St John 11:11 ; Acts 7:60 , Acts 13:36 . St Paul uses it in ch. 11:30 and ch. 15:6, 18, 20, 51, and in 1 Thessalonians 4:13 , 1 Thessalonians 4:14 , 1 Thessalonians 4:15 . The same idea is found in St Matthew 9:24 , and in the parallel passages in St Mark and St Luke, but the word employed in the Greek is different. The writers of the Old Testament also described death thus, as, for instance, in Deuteronomy 31:16 ; 1 Kings 2:10 ; Daniel 12:2 . Thus death is robbed of half its terrors. It is a condition of partially, not wholly, suspended consciousness; a waiting of the soul, in union with its Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:14 ) until the great awakening. Calvin remarks that to infer from this passage that the soul, separated from the body, was without sense or intelligence, would be to say that it was without life. See 2 Corinthians 12:2 .

only in the Lord ] Cf. 2 Corinthians 6:14 . The marriage of widows was discountenanced, but not forbidden. Under certain circumstances it was even enjoined. See 1 Timothy 5:9 , 1 Timothy 5:11 , 1 Timothy 5:14 . But under all circumstances mixed marriages were to be avoided.

40 . and I think also that I have the Spirit of God ] Not that there was any doubt in the Apostle’s mind on this point. The word used implies full persuasion that in the advice he had given he was speaking under the direction of the Holy Spirit.

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on 1 Corinthians 7". "Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/cgt/1-corinthians-7.html. 1896.
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